13- Karna’s death and the view that he was killed unfairly

In the final battle between Karna and Arjuna, Karna dies after Arjuna cuts his head off with the Anjalika weapon. It is a long drawn battle between two excellent bowmen. The armies of both sides are watching from the sidelines. Arjuna’s brothers and his friends as well as Duryodhana and his allies are standing to the side watching the two great warriors fight their last battle. If Arjuna’s charioteer is Krishna, Karna’s is the great warrior, experienced war veteran Shalya. As the two fight, it seems that sometimes Arjuna will win, at other times Karna will win.

Finally Karna is wounded badly by Arjuna, his vital organs are pierced by Arjuna’s arrows and it is that this point that his chariot sinks in the mud. He speaks about fairness and righteousness to Arjuna, asking him to stop fighting until he can lift his chariot out of the mud. However, Krishna asks him how he forgot about the same righteousness and fairness when he encouraged and participated in Duryodhana’s evil deeds all this time. Krishna also reminds Karna that he cut off Abhimanyu’s bow string from behind and then all the Kauravas jointly attacked an unarmed boy whose armour had already been broken and his weapons exhausted.

Yet, many people believe that Karna was killed unfairly because he was attacked when he was lifting the wheel out of the mud, and hence he had no warning . HOWEVER, according to the epic, this is not exactly how Karna’s death took place. There are two VERY IMPORTANT points that are overlooked by those who feel Karna was killed unfairly.
  • Just minutes before Karna’s chariot sinks in the mud, ARJUNA’S chariot sinks. As Krishna is trying to pull up the chariot wheel, Karna keeps showering arrows upon the UNARMED Krishna, instead of targeting only Arjuna. When the exact same thing happens to Karna minutes later, he speaks of how it is unrighteous to attack someone who has put down his bow. Krishna is unarmed, he does not even HAVE a bow or any other weapons and he did not fight in the war.
Karna Parva
The Mahabharata, Book 8: Karna Parva: Section 90
After that snake had been cut off by Arjuna, the lord Keshava himself, O king, of massive arms, that foremost of beings, raised up with his arms that car from the earth. At that time, Karna, glancing obliquely at Dhananjaya, pierced that foremost of persons, viz., Krishna, with ten shafts whetted on stone and equipped with peacock feathers.
  • Karna cut off Abhimanyu’s bow string from behind before a number of Kauravas attacked the boy jointly and killed him. However, when Karna chooses to jump down from his chariot and lift his chariot wheel AFTER Krishna tells him he should not speak of righteousness or fairness, Arjuna does NOT kill him without warning. He first shoots at his standard (flag) and knocks it down, in warning, to show that he will not stop.
Karna Parva
The Mahabharata, Book 8: Karna Parva: Section 90
With that standard, as it fell, the fame, pride, hope of victory, and everything dear, as also the hearts of the Kurus, fell, and loud wails of "Oh!" and "Alas!" arose (from the Kuru army). Beholding that standard cut off and thrown down by that hero of Kuru's race possessed of great lightness of hand, thy troops, O Bharata, were no longer hopeful of Karna's victory.

Indeed, O king, with that excellent Anjalika weapon inspired with mantras into a mighty weapon, the son of Indra cut off the head of Vaikartana in the afternoon. Thus cut off with that Anjalika, the trunk of Karna fell down on the earth.

As per the epic, Karna who found it fair and just to attack Abhimanyu when he was unarmed and also attack Krishna when he was lifting his chariot wheel out of the mud, suddenly speak about fairness and righteousness when HIS chariot wheel gets stuck in the mud. This makes Krishna remind him of all the evil deeds he himself has done.
The message given here is that Dharma does not change from person to person. What is fair for one is fair for all. Karna used a particular strategy earlier, that actually went against the rules of war. But now when he has already been badly wounded and he knows he cannot win, he talks about dharma.

Dharma is not a pair of dice that Sakuni can roll to his advantage every time. Dharma is universal and it applies equally to all. This is the message that Karna’s death gives us.

This is what I know.....that Kundhi got a promise from Pandavas
not to kill,their brother Karna...
Then how come Arjun cut off his head....?
That promise part is not in the epic....?
That is not part of the epic. IN fact, the fact that Karna is their brother is known to the Pandavas ONLY AFTER THE WAR is over. When Yudi is readying to do the final rites for all the kinsmen who died in the war, Kunti tells him to do it for Karna also bcos he is her eldest born. This is when the Pandavas know that Karna is their eldest brother.